Justin E. H. Smith
[An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing can be found at www.jehsmith.com]
I have just given a talk at the University of Hamburg in the Ernst Cassirer Memorial Lecture Series. What my hosts did not tell me when I was invited was that the event would coincide with some of the early matches of the World Cup, being hosted this year in (just my luck) Germany. I had come to Hamburg to discuss the legacy of Aristotle in the Protestant Reformation, but ended up being practically shut out by the nationwide roar accompanying the Poland-Germany match, with borderline hooligans –and as far as I’m concerned they’re all borderline hooligans– roving the streets shouting ‘Tor!’ as I droned on to an empty auditorium in poorly accented German about Martin Luther’s commentary on Genesis. Today I would like to explain why not just the victory of Germany over Poland, but also the victory in Europe of the drunken rabble over traditional piety, of the circus over the temple, is a thing to be bemoaned. I recognize that some in the 3QD community are ‘pumped’ about this year’s competition, and I do so hate to be a prick. But the fans among you may take comfort in the knowledge that I am grossly outnumbered, and that my quaint plaidoyer will assuredly come to nothing.
How, I want to know, does it manage to command such passions, this month of noise in which the outcome is known in advance? The winning team is of course not known in advance; what is known is that one or the other of them will win, according to inflexible rules that bind all of them equally. The only way the affair can amount to anything more than a mere stochastic process –as when atoms are bound to decay, even if we can’t say which ones– is if something goes terribly wrong, if some non-sportive interference breaks into the flow of events, some interference from the truly interesting domain of politics, a domain from which the fans like to sanctimoniously claim sports gives us a needed reprieve.
Thank God for the irruptions of the political, I say. Without them, there really would be no reason to pay attention to international athletic competitions. With them, we get bizarre reports of Iran’s soccer team being made to watch Sally Field in Not without my Daughter during their visit to France for the 1998 World Cup; we get a Cold War sublimated through doped-up East German shot-putters and 75-pound, slave-driven Chinese gymnasts. And we get Kim Jong Il at his zany best. In 1972, the now-Dear Leader gave a speech to the North Korean national soccer team: “It is very important to develop sports,” he declared. “Pointing out that physical culture is one of the means to strengthen the friendly relations with foreign countries, the great leader [Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung] said that physical culture should be developed. At present, however, the instructions of the great leader are not carried out to the letter in the sphere of physical culture, and sports exchange is not conducted properly, as required by the Party. A common example is the fact that our soccer players were defeated in the recent preliminaries for the Olympic Games.” Kim takes defeat as itself proof that the athletes are lapsing into counterrevolutionary laziness. Should this unsubtle hint that the higher- ups expect to start seeing some victories cause a bit of stress, the Dear Leader has a cure: “As for those whose nerves are on edge,” he assures the team, “they will get better if they live in tents on Rungna Islet.”
(Speaking of geopolitics, why is it that every time American football is brought up by, or in the company of, a European, an awkward apology has to be made for the sport’s name? There are millions of Americans who believe that what they watch on Sunday mornings is football, and as far as I understand language that is enough to make it so. Nor shall I make any apologies for calling soccer ‘soccer’. That is just what it is called where I am from, and to do any differently is nothing but an affectation, like spelling ‘color’ with a ‘u’, or saying ‘bloody’.)
With the end of the Cold War, for the most part sporting events are no longer about nationalism, but about transnational corporations. Nations either prove they can behave themselves, like the perpetually prostrate Germans, or they are not invited, like the North Koreans. An important part of good behavior is to allow yourself, your team, your stadium, and your country to be covered in advertisements.
The corporations have proved better than the old nation-states at pretending that what they are doing is not political. Rather, it is at its dreariest just business, and at its best downright fun. Nike and the other image-makers have convinced us that competitive sports are something that one gets involved in not for love of Fatherland, but for the sheer, personal enjoyment of it. To be Beckham, the suggestion is meant to be, would be to know a life of unmodulated, unadulterated joy.
I am a runner, and so I have no choice but to go into some of the same stores, and think some of the same thoughts, as soccer fans. I buy Nikes and knee-braces, and I run round municipal lakes and parks with athletes and fans of competitive sports. This is the closest I ever come to community with them. When I run in Germany I am often asked by these over-earnest folk, “Ah so, you like to make sport?” Yes, I want to say. Gern. It gives me great joy. It makes me feel like Beckham. With the right shoes on, and the right sport-beverage, I almost feel as though I’m in a commercial, as though I’m moving in slow-motion, as though the promise of the masses chanting ‘We will, we will rock you,’ is at long last coming true.
Bullshit. I run because I’m afraid of letting myself go, as they say, since to do so would be to allow the inevitable unraveling of this mortal coil to define the terms from here on out. It has nothing to do, in other words, with fun. It has to do with sheer terror. In a bygone era, there were many Germans who wrote with conviction and power about terror in the face of death. Now they ‘make sport’.
I do not spend all that much time in Germany, but somehow have managed to be here just in time for the past three World Cups. If it weren’t for these coincidences between my research and lecture schedule on the one hand, and the world’s athletic schedule on the other, I would have no idea of soccer beyond my youth-league misadventures. My first lessons about the World Cup were in 1998, when a gang of German hooligans rampaging outside a stadium in France ended up killing a French policeman. Helmut Kohl went on TV with utmost contrition. He noted, rightly and obviously, that this event brought back distressing memories of a still living history, and declared, wrongly, that this murder had nothing to do with the true spirit of competitive sports. The German people rushed to agree with him on both of these points. Might it be worth considering, though, that far from being the cancer cells of fandom, the hooligans are in fact the true fans, making explicit what it is all this shouting and side-taking is really all about? To wit, violence, in its mild form only vocal and gestural, but not for that reason categorically different from a kick in the shins or a brick in the head.
Heidegger liked to say that the ‘forgetfulness of Being’ that came with the rise of Western rational thought had its ultimate issue in Gerede or pointless small-talk. Heidegger was of course pumped up in his own idiotic way, but still it seems to me that there is something we may justly call ‘forgetful’ about sports fandom. There are, in marked contrast, many other things human beings do in order to come to terms with their fate, rather than to avoid it. These are, in their own way, the opposite of sports. I for my part would rather go to church, I would rather go to a funeral, than to invest one second of my attention in a staged contest between men, in the aftermath of which everything, but everything, is destined to remain the same.